All Behavior is Communication
You see a child across the room, crossing their ankles, wiggling, and you know just by seeing how they’re acting, they have to go to the bathroom. A little one is napping on the couch and it says, “I’m tired.” A child holding his or her knee after falling off the scooter says, “I’m hurt.” Without words, without being awake, without even seeing what happened beforehand, behaviors communicate what a child needs.
Often times, the phrase “acting out” is used to describe a child who is being defiant, aggressive, disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive. But what is the child acting out? If the potty dance acts out needing to use the restroom, or taking a nap acts out being tired, what are cursing, hitting, and tantrums acting out?
Interpreting and decoding behavior is both incredibly challenging and incredibly helpful when addressing behaviors. Here are a few things to think about:
Be Curious With Your Child
As the storm begins to brew, start to point out what you see. Say, “I notice you’re making fists, are you angry?” Point out slamming the door, or making a mopey face. Are they sad, tired, hungry? Help your child notice his or her own behaviors. Be curious with them about the emotion that goes with the behavior and help them name it. You have to name it to tame it.
I used to work at a residential facility and I once had a little girl, let’s call her Z, throw an absolute fit by screaming and hiding under the bed and no one knew why. After laying on the floor next to Z and convincing her to play Pretty Pretty Princess with us, we figured out what was wrong because as we were leaving the room, she exclaimed, “But first I need a snack! And not a popsicle because it’s just sugar water and I’ll be hungry!” She had a huge fit over sugar water, but once she could calm down, she explained her anger very well.
When kids struggle with self-regulation, even sugar water can send them reeling. They need our help to regulate and verbalize what they need.
Decode the Behavior
What could it mean? Kids need to feel seen, heard, safe, and soothed in order to feel secure. If they don’t feel seen, the behaviors will likely get bigger. If they don’t feel heard, they’ll probably get louder. And if they aren’t soothed, they might try and make you as uncomfortable as they feel. Z started off by pouting, but we didn’t see her. Z tried to tell us by refusing her snack, but we didn’t hear her. So her behaviors got bigger, she got louder, and historically, she would also get aggressive, but we managed to connect before it got that far.
Just as you are trying to make meaning out of your child’s behavior, your child has already made meaning out of yours. If I’m not seen, then I must not matter. If I’m not heard, then maybe you don’t care. If I’m not safe, then I can’t trust you. And if I’m not soothed, then you must not love me.
Respond Rather than React
As the adults, our goal is to be a thermostat rather than a thermometer. A thermostat controls the temperature of a room. A thermometer reacts to changing temperature. Notice how you respond to your child. What’s your tone of voice? What are you feeling? Maybe it’s a physical sensation that doesn’t have words. Are you escalating with your child because you’re already exhausted by the impeding fit? You’re tired too and here we go again with another problem. It’s exhausting and sometimes it feels like a losing battle. But keep in mind—you guys are on the same team. It’s not a battle at all. In these moments the goal is to connect and then direct.
With Z, I layed on the floor next to her and told her I would stay until she felt better. Then we asked her to play a game with us. It communicated to her that we were in it together and that she was wanted. Once she felt soothed, the rest was easy.
Take a moment to understand your child’s inner world. You see the behaviors starting. What do they need? How have they interpreted your response? Does a “No” to video games mean you don’t care about what matters to them? How awful to feel like mom doesn’t care, right? It’s a bummer. (You can validate the emotion without agreeing with the statement.) Once you connect, then you can direct. “How awful to feel like I don’t care about what you want. I actually wanted you to finish your homework so you could relax for the rest of the night. You get so stressed doing homework before bed.”
Just pretend life is a game of Charades. That’ll make it fun, right? Maybe not, but taking a step back to look at behaviors as communication may make life a little easier. Kids need practice giving words to their emotions rather than behaviors and responding to them in a new way is the starting line. It’s a puzzle. And when you work together with your child, you’re going to start to get the whole picture.
*The information contained herein is not therapeutic advice nor a substitute for therapy. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any mental health problem. If you are located within the United States and you need emergency assistance please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. If you are located within Colorado you may also call the Colorado Crisis Line at 844-493-TALK (8255).